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Death Defying

Sur Les Traces de Dinozard, Faustin Linyekula, Choreographer, September 29, REDCAT —

To open its 2017-2018 season, REDCAT offered a dramatic dance/theatre/music presentation of the 90-minute performance of Sur Les Traces de Dinozard (“In Search of Dinozard”), choreographed, directed and danced by the award-winning Congolese artist, Faustin Linyekula. His troupe of seven male singer/dancers, known as Studios Kabako, mesmerized the audience with tableaux of death and survival, music and movement, memory and hope. Born out of more than a century of colonization, corruption and killing in Central Africa, the evening’s words and images will haunt anyone who experienced them. REDCAT deserves continued praise for expanding the number of innovative and integral artists it brings to Los Angeles from all over the world.

A look at the tortured history of life along the Congo, the world’s deepest river, helps set the stage for Dinozard. Many tribes, principally the Bantu, have lived for a thousand years in what would become Africa’s second-largest country. In the 19th Century, the Victorian era of Stanley and Livingston, vast lands were exploited, overrun with avaricious explorers who stumbled on the wealth of the world at their feet—rich veins of gold, copper, tin, diamonds and cobalt. In 1885, Belgium’s King Leopold II and his family claimed the entire territory as their own and saw millions of ill-treated Congolese workers die of disease while processing rubber and timber. In 1908, Belgium annexed the land, renaming it the Belgian Congo.

Since 1960, when it achieved independence, the renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo has been beset by coups, assassinations, civil wars, the three decade reign of Mobutu Sese Seko, the slaughter of millions of Tutsi and Hutu tribes and the lack of education or development throughout the country. Although bloody strife is a constant even today, a constitution was approved by a national vote in 2006.

This battered land is where Faustin Linyekula and his company grew up; the loss of their friends and neighbors through torture and death is what inspires them to grow stronger. They can’t forget what happened to their country and they want international audiences to remember, too. We can experience a little of their history through the poetry, art and extraordinary dance in Dinozard.

The performance began with Linyekula quietly appearing in the audience-right shadows in REDCAT’s “black box”, his face covered in thick, white makeup. Five dancers appeared on the other side of the stage and would later hide their facial features under “masks” of stark whitewash. All of the men were barefoot and wore non-descript pants and loose white shirts. Their appearance and slow, deliberate movements gave the distinct impression of the ghosts they were recalling.

The excellent sound system at REDCAT began to emit a quiet cacophony of city noises, electronic hums, faint voices, bird song and animal-like bleats. As the din rose to a dramatic roar, the standing Linyekula’s right hand shook as if electrified for a minute or so. When the sound diminished, the other dancers moved into the light at stage center and the multi-media performance was under way.

For several reasons, it is difficult to fathom all that happens during Dinozard:  the spoken words are often French (the official language of Congo) or phrases from the Latin Mass (the country is 95% Catholic or Christian); letters, poems and accounts of past horrors are projected, in English, onto an 8′ tall, 20′ wide, plain wooden billboard on the theatre’s back wall; organ music by Arvo Part and fragments of Mozart’s “Requiem”, recorded by the Charles Lwanga Choir of Kisangani, drift in and out; and portions of the Mozart score are sung, live, throughout the performance by the remarkable counter-tenor, Serge Kakudji.  

There was a lot going on, much of it subtle. Perhaps most involving in the first half hour was a pas de deux by Papy Ebotani and Yves Mwamba Bakadiasa. One man was virtually lifeless on the floor; the other continually tried to raise him to at least a seated position but soon the man would wilt again. The love and tenderness of the action, a tribute to the dancers’ skill and to Linyekula’s choreography, brought to mind the intimate care given to a helpless person, wounded in war, by a comrade.

As this duet continued, the other three men—Jean Kumbonyeki Deba, Papy Maurice Mbwiti and singer Kakudji–were in their own separate worlds, often gyrating violently. Moving trance-like about the stage, they would at times collapse, as if shot by a bullet, then be lifted up by a fellow dancer into strange, upside down positions–balanced on their heads, feet akimbo in the air. Linyekula flashed more words and phrases onto the back wall and spoke them aloud. Later in the first hour, a face appeared on a TV screen in the corner and we saw and heard Antoine Vumilia Muhindo, via Skype. Long a political prisoner and now finally free, Muhindo recounted some of the inhumane upheavals in the D.R.C.

The night’s final 30 minutes began to feel slightly repetitive, as if a tighter version of the show had been stretched into a full evening. But Linyekula and his actors gave powerful performances–restrained as well as emotional–and the endless turmoil in their homeland was always vividly conveyed. A battered, red metal trunk, carried coffin-like on shoulders, was filled with thousands of pieces of paper which were strewn across the stage, then gathered up again. This was a representation of the life’s work of the writer Kabako, after whom the theatre company is named. (Kabako was also a political prisoner who, after his release, died of bubonic plague.)

The night’s penultimate scene was a surprisingly sexy, unexpected mix of solo dance and music. A recording of Jimi Hendrix singing Voodoo Chile filled the theatre and Kumbonyeki Deba, near the back wall, slowly began to move with it. The dancer used his own lithe shadow as a partner–undulating, jabbing, twisting and creating new steps every moment. It was a joyous melding of blues music and liquid, hip-hop moves although its connection to the evening as a whole was not entirely clear. (The “Voodoo Chile” lyrics include: “If I don’t meet you no more in this world, then I’ll meet you in the next one. And don’t be late.” But there was positive hope in the sensuous dance those words accompanied.)

A moment after the song ended, a voice on stage said “thank you” and then all of the actors turned to face the billboard, their backs to the audience. The hopeful phrases they silently read were penned in 2006 when the people of Congo voted successfully for a constitution–after which their country quickly returned to its continuing chaos.  Linyekula and his mates stared at the words, forgetting and remembering their shared past. They did not move nor did they take bows. The audience finally understood, gradually rose, gave a standing ovation, then slowly walked out. The actors remained motionless until the last person left the theatre; they never stopped looking up, proudly, towards a future they want to regain.

 

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